Oklahoma: How Kansas can protect itself better from wildfires

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Oklahoma had to learn the hard way that Kansas fights fires unlike almost anywhere else in the U.S., according to George Geissler, the director of the Oklahoma Forest Service.

Instead of reaching out to a single Kansas agency during the Anderson Creek fire last year — which burned nearly 400,000 acres near Medicine Lodge — Oklahoma had to reach out separately to each Kansas county impacted by the fire. Each county gave the fire a different name, Geissler said, and often provided "wildly different" reports about how much damage the fire had done.

So before this year's fire season kicked off, Geissler took several of his 80 full-time staff members to meet with all five fire people at the Kansas Forest Service responsible for coordinating the state's response to wildfires. They shared information about how each state handles wildfires.

"Kansas did not do it like any other state in the U.S., and we share this common border," Geissler said. "I was a little embarrassed that I didn't know enough about Kansas' wildland fire infrastructure in order to deal with Anderson Creek."

So this year, Oklahoma was prepared. Geissler knew to rely on his state's information, rather than seeking additional information from Kansas. He knew that, when Oklahoma sent a plane up into the air to map the fire, it would have to map the Kansas side of the fire, too. Kansas didn't have mapping technology that would allow Oklahoma to watch whether the fire was likely to re-enter Oklahoma, he said.

Over the past two years, Kansas has had to fight two of the largest fires in the country by acreage with some of the smallest resources of any state. Oklahoma's total state firefighting budget is about $15 million and Kansas' budget is only about $300,000.

Some state politicians say this has to change.

"The coordination of wildland fires is woefully lacking because of a serious lack of resources," said state representative John Carmichael, D-Wichita. "This is all endemic: When you starve the beast of government, when you eliminate income taxes, you put the state in a financial crisis, public safety included."

But Geissler doesn't want Kansans to think that it would take an unreasonable infusion of resources to get up to speed.

"We have more resources, that's not arguable, that's real," Geissler said. "But there is a lot that Kansas can do with just a few million dollars that would make overall state response better."

Review process begins

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback asked the state to form a committee to find ways to improve its ability to prevent and fight wildfires, according to Larry Biles, the director of the Kansas Forest Service.

On Tuesday, a group of about 25 representatives of firefighting and emergency management organizations across Kansas met to begin that process. The initial conversation was wide-ranging.

"We already have a long list of ideas, but can't do everything at once," said Eric Ward, a fire specialist with the Kansas Forest Service. "But we have a long list of ideas we're going to be working and trying to figure out what we can do first and prioritizing as an agency."

"We would love to be in a position to what Oklahoma is in," Ward said. "But they didn't get there overnight either. Or even in a year."

One of the many issues discussed was how to coordinate ordering additional help, such as equipment and people. During the massive wildfires on March 6, the emergency managers at the state level were using a different system than the emergency managers at the county level, which was a different system than the state Forest Service was using, according to Ross Hauck, who attended the meeting for the Forest Service.

"So the guys in the state emergency operations center were sometimes ordering the same people," Hauck said.

On Wednesday, the state passed a law that allows Kansas to share resources with other states, including Oklahoma, which the Forest Service hopes will pay immediate dividends.

The past two years, fires crossing state lines had to be managed as two separate fires, one on each side. "With the compact, we have better opportunity to not do that nonsense, and to manage it as one fire as it truly is," said Jason Hartman, a firefighting specialist with the Kansas Forest Service.

Oklahoma differences

Oklahoma has forest areas it has to protect in the eastern part of the state. And until the past four or five years, that is where most of the 80 state firefighters stayed. (An additional 20 employees switch into full-time wildfire roles during fire season.)

But much of the western part of the state, which burned into Kansas the past two years, looks more like Kansas: pastureland, farmland and red cedar trees.

So Oklahoma, like Kansas, relies largely on volunteer firefighters to respond quickly and put out most of the small fires that spring up, especially in rural areas.

But there are important differences, Geissler said.

Oklahoma has an employee whose main job is to work with weather services to help determine fire risks.

And in the past four or five years, Geissler said, Oklahoma has started shifting people and equipment closer to high-risk areas. So when the Starbuck fire started March 6, state resources were only 80 miles away and could begin attacking the eastern side of the fire soon after the fire started.

The Oklahoma Forest Service has an agreement with its highway patrol to use aerial resources to help with the fire. So within hours, Oklahoma had a plane in the air with sophisticated, but relatively inexpensive mapping software that gave the state a picture of how big the fire was and what the risks were.

And the state had a staffer on-site to quickly assess how serious the fire was. There's a formal checklist that determines the need for resources — and it was obvious, based on how big the fire was, how fast it was moving and how complicated it was, they didn't have enough help.

So Geissler knew quickly that they had to call for a Type I team, the largest possible, with 60 additional staffers. Oklahoma has a Type II team available at all times because it faces a fire that size about once every year. But the fires on March 6 were beyond what the team could handle on its own.

"I know it's two years in a row, and it seems horrible," Geissler said. But fires that big "are very rare." The last time he remembers Oklahoma needing a Type I team was in 1998.

But because Oklahoma had a firefighting pact in place, it called for help and had firefighters from 34 states helping put out its fires.

What it would take

Geissler thinks that if Kansas increased the number of staff from four to between eight and 20, it could respond more quickly and effectively to dangerous wildfires.

It takes a minimum of eight to 10 administrative staff in Oklahoma to perform the basic administrative functions, Geissler said.

"It's not always the guys in the hose and grader (that make a difference), it's really getting it all organized," Geissler said. "That's why we put so much emphasis on getting an aircraft up, to know what is happening on the ground before it even starts."

Having more full-time staff has ancillary benefits, Geissler said. It allows the state to communicate more effectively with local fire departments and the public.

"I cannot qualify this with hard data, but I know since we have gone to predicting when the bad days are and asking Oklahomans to be careful, report your fires early, we've seen that people are taking extra care," Geissler said. "We've had some potentially very bad days, and we didn't have the ignition, and the fire didn't start."

A few key technologies could also help each community mitigate their risks, Geissler said. Oklahoma uses a mapping technology called SouthWRAP that identifies fire risks across the state.

"So if you go onto our website, and you type in your address, it will tell you what the risks are for your community," Geissler said. It will also bring up a map of the fuels — such as cedar trees and dried pastureland — and a report of steps landowners can take to reduce the fire risk.

What it would mean

By adding resources, Kansas could contain its fires more quickly and provide more protection for lives and property, Geissler said.

But there isn't a way to totally protect a state.

"When you have ... the type of fire that we were experiencing, most of the time, the absolute only thing you can do is get the heck out of its way," Geissler said.

"It was already so big, just sending the few trucks we had out there wasn't going to do anything," Geissler said. "And it was going to put a whole lot of people in jeopardy we didn't need to put in jeopardy."

The only safe approach for a fire like that is to fight it from the side and pinch the front of the fire inward, little by little, so that at some point the head-fire is small enough to take a stand on, Geissler said.

The fires on March 6 burned more than 700,000 acres in Kansas, caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to fencing and cattle, and resulted in the loss of seven lives between Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

It's possible that more resources might have been able to save additional homes and barns. But it's difficult to tell in hindsight, Geissler said, because some of those structures may have had fires too dangerous to get in front of.

And Oklahoma doesn't protect cattle either, which was some of the biggest losses dollar wise in the March 6 fires.

"We can do some fairly amazing things as far as home protection, but to say you're going to put a bunch of firefighters out in front of a herd of cattle, that goes against our normal operation," Geissler said. "We're not going to make a stand with water hoses trying to save cattle."